The U.S. Forest Service last week withdrew its 2017 decision that seemingly gave the green light on the 3,700-acre Dinkey timber sale project in Polk County, Tennessee, that conservation groups challenged in federal court.
On Thursday, the conservation groups voluntarily withdrew the lawsuit they filed in March in U.S. District Court.
In other words, it's over. At least for now.
"With this memo I am withdrawing the Decision," District Ranger Michael Wright wrote to Forest Supervisor JaSal Morris in a letter dated June 20. "Any future Forest Service project involving any part of the Dinkey project will be commenced through a new environmental analysis."
On Thursday, the lawsuit brought in U.S. District Court by Tennessee conservation group plaintiffs was voluntarily dismissed, according to court documents signed by Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club attorneys. The groups' suit alleged that the Forest Service "illegally endangered the soil, forests and waters of the Cherokee National Forest and hid those risks from the public," according to a statement from the conservation groups issued on Thursday.
The suit focused on what the Forest Service called the "Dinkey Project," a logging project slated for an area along Tumbling Creek near Copperhill in Western Polk County. The creek is "lined with steep slopes and fragile soils that made it a poor choice for commercial operations," stated a release on the latest development from the conservation groups. The forest service canceled the sale after pushback from residents and conservation groups.
Conservationists involved see the move as a "first step."
"We take the Forest Service's decision to withdraw the timber sale near Tumbling Creek as an important first step in rebuilding the trust that has been eroded between local citizens and the Forest Service," said Sam Evans, leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center's National Forest and Parks program. "Our decision to dismiss the lawsuit is intended in the same spirit."
Tumbling Creek is a sparkling stream that flows through hemlocks and beech trees on the southeastern corner of the Cherokee National Forest's Ocoee District. It provides anglers a cold-water trout stream and families a quiet setting near Copperhill for camping, wading and picnicking.
Federal officials told the Times Free Press in September 2017 that timber sales are offered as part of the agency's restoration efforts to return an area to "a more natural state" by restoring the ecosystem with appropriate vegetation, officials said. Forest Service officials contended that Tumbling Creek didn't face an impact from the planned timbering project.
Representatives of the conservation groups said the health of Tumbling Creek was a major factor in the federal lawsuit. The creek feeds into the Ocoee River, and conservation groups were worried that heavy commercial logging along the creek would lead to erosion, harming fish and other wildlife.
"We were concerned that the timber sale near Tumbling Creek would cause massive soil loss that would prevent trees from growing on steep slopes, as was the case with other recent logging projects, one of which was only a dozen miles west of this area," Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club conservation chairman Axel Ringe said, referring to a recent timber sale dubbed the "Hogback" project.
Staff writer Mark Pace contributed to this story.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.